Former North Carolina Sen. John Edwards was midway through his speech inside a crowded firehouse here last week when audience member Eunice McCarty nudged the man sitting next to her.
He was a Republican, and McCarty wanted him to know he had just been caught at a Democratic presidential candidate’s event.
The man didn’t applaud much, but at least he paid attention, she said.
“After all the things, they may be willing to listen at least,” she figured.
In this far-flung, northwestern corner of Iowa, it’s “almost kind of scary” to be anything but a Republican, she said.
Lyon County, which touches South Dakota and Minnesota, gave President Bush 78 percent of the vote in 2004. It’s part of the big, red, rural block that Bush used to eke out the narrowest of victories in the Hawkeye State that year.
In these parts, “A lot of times you don’t brag about being a Democrat,” said McCarty, 72, of Larchwood, Iowa. “But it’s getting better.”
That could explain the elbow-to-elbow crowd that greeted Edwards at the firehouse — and the grin Edwards had when he was talking to reporters afterward.
“I do have to say, I was remembering the last time I was up here,” Edwards said, thinking back to the 2004 campaign. “We had five, seven people. . . .”
Times have changed.
Now, the Republican Party is saddled with an unpopular president with an unpopular war. And on top of that, the party’s rural base now faces anxiety over home foreclosures, gas prices, job outsourcing, trade agreements, the growth of corporate agriculture and soaring health care costs.
Democrats see an opening. So they’re trying to reconnect with working-class folks in rural areas who, especially since the Reagan administration, have been pulled into the Republican column over cultural issues.
“All that’s happening is the Reagan Democrats are starting to come home,” said Dave “Mudcat” Saunders, the fast-drawling rural strategist who leads Edwards’ drive to the countryside.
Edwards isn’t the only one trying to bring rural voters — including independents — back into the Democratic fold.
Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois draws big crowds when he ventures off the beaten path and out into the hinterlands. He doesn’t have Edwards’ backwoods accent, but he gets cheers telling rural audiences that he thinks some folks have been in Washington, D.C., far too long.
Obama often tells the story of folks sneaking up to him in the rope line, shaking his hand and whispering — as if it were a sin — that they’re Republicans and that they support him.
In far-flung towns, New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson makes sure everyone knows he’s a hunter, mentioning his support from the National Rifle Association to boost his cross- over potential.
And all the Democrats, from national front-runner, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, on down, have started to venture more often into rural areas, sometimes drawing curious crowds that seem out-of-whack with the party’s low voter registration numbers in those places.
None of the 2008 Democratic presidential contenders can be confused with a conservative — not as it has come to be intertwined with social issues in recent decades. They all support abortion rights, gay rights and different versions of big initiatives like universal health care.
But the war and economic issues, combined with a muddle in the Republican presidential field, could explain why more GOP faithful are slipping into Democratic crowds.
“I’m definitely willing to listen to ’em,” said Billy Middendorp, a Republican special education teacher who chaperoned a busload of high school students to Edwards’ event in Rock Rapids, Iowa last week. “There’s no Republican right now that has my vote.”
Later that night, when Edwards spoke about agriculture policy in Cylinder, the crowd inside the hog barn was larger than the town’s entire population (110 in the 2000 census). Audience member Marilyn Egland said she wished she could find a Republican candidate to support. But she said that even some Republicans are “kind of tired of the party” after nearly seven years of White House control.
“It just seems like the party’s falling apart,” Egland said. “I voted for Mr. Bush. I think the people are tired of what he has done. Even Republicans are tired of what he has been doing. That’s why I’m here.”
And as they made their way through far-flung parts of northwest Iowa, Republicans and conservative-leaning independents were sprinkled liberally in every crowd.
In short, all the Democrats are trying to show that they “get it” when it comes to rural America, and they’re not going to write off some of the darkest red, or Republican, spots on the 2008 map.
(Contact M.E. Sprengelmeyer of the Rocky Mountain News at www.rockymountainnews.com.)